"Whoa, Chippendales!" a female voice chirps, hailing Stoitchkov, who's strutting through a hallway of the Sheraton in a tuxedo vest with no shirt and rented black pants that are four inches too short. Moments later he hikes down the high-waters, revealing a white Calvin Klein waistband that makes him look like Marky Mark in the old Times Square ads. He's having fun, but that's not the point.
The point is, what kind of league would force its players to attend a black-tie banquet the night before the championship game? Why, MLS, which presents its awards to the season's top players, the Best 11, at a gala only 18 hours before kickoff. Armas is a winner for the third straight year, despite having played in only 16 of the Fire's 32 regular-season games. "It's an honor to be chosen, but my goal is to make it a short night," he says while Justine adjusts his tie. "We'll sit down, and my leg will get swollen, and I'll worry about it."
No matter. Armas is too busy thinking about the game to mind the dinner much. Though Chicago has the most talented roster in MLS, this season it has suffered a series of injuries to key players, and coach Bob Bradley has done a masterly job of steering his team to a combined 21-11-6 record for the regular season and playoffs. "To get to this point shows a lot of character," Armas says. "I'm proud of this team, no matter what happens tomorrow."
Sunday, October 15
From the opening sequence of the MLS title game, when Armas springs Peter Nowak free with a header only to have Nowak stumble in front of the goal, the Fire dominates the Wizards in every aspect but one. Scoring. In the 11th minute K.C.'s Chris Klein eludes Armas as he churns up the right side and serves a cross into the penalty box. The ball ricochets off the Fire's Marsch to Wizards striker Miklos Molnar, who pushes home the gift goal.
" Klein poked it by me, and he did well to put it in the box, but we had numbers there," Armas says later, shaking his head. "I was thinking, Be patient. We'll get more chances, score a few goals."
The chances come. The goals do not. The Fire hits the woodwork twice, once when Gutierrez doinks the crossbar from three yards out. Wizards goalkeeper Tony Meola parries another 10 shots, and K.C. raises the silver trophy as the 2000 MLS champion. "So we had a lot of chances? So we dominated? Big deal," Armas says in the crypt-quiet Chicago locker room. "No point in saying what we could have done. We didn't do it. That's reality."
So is this: After surviving one of the most intense weeks in the history of U.S. soccer, Armas still has one more game to play, this Saturday in Chicago against the Miami Fusion. It's the final of the U.S. Open Cup, a 154-team knockout competition that included all the MLS clubs plus squads from three other professional and amateur leagues. In other words, the Fire may have lost a championship on Sunday, but it can still finish the season with a big, shiny trophy.
We told you this sport was unlike any other, didn't we?